Never one for crosswords or brain teasers, in my younger days I got my quiz kicks from lineups of leaders at G7 Economic Summits. Always familiar were the Presidents of the US and France, the Chancellor of Germany and the Prime Minister of the UK. The Canadian premier would generally give himself away by the jutting jaw honed by evolution to fell a tree with one bite, while the Japanese PM was invariably, well, Japanese. That left the one nobody recognized because he had never been in the job more than 3 weeks – the bloke from Italy.
It was nostalgic to view the line-up at the G8 last month – Russia has now come in from the cold – and, as in days of old, stare blankly at the Italian (I still don’t know his name).
Probably because the Summit was in one of the most God forsaken places on Earth (Northern Ireland) – the leaders turned their minds to taxation. A politician trying to deal with taxation is much like a bomb disposal expert trying to deal with unexploded ordnance – only without the expert bit. Those of us deemed by politicians (!!) to be of perverted mind and questionable morality proffer thanks therefore to the Great-Tax-Collector-in-the-Sky for ensuring the issue was kicked into the long grass of this months’s G20 Summit in the utterly not forsaken St Petersburg (fka Leningrad fka Petrograd fka St Petersburg). Nothing, but nothing, will be achieved there other than strengthening the hand of the OECD. While the tax gurus at the OECD are impossibly slow in arriving at decisions, they do at least understand the intricacies of our ignoble craft and are the best bet the world has for getting things straight.
The communique issued at the end of the G8 Summit listed the three Ts: trade, tax and transparency. In the field of taxation the leaders plan automatic exchange of information between tax authorities as well as a central register of beneficial ownership of companies, both of which should help combat tax evasion – difficult for even the most hardened of tax hacks to argue with . Joining the populist revolt against Multinationals, the leaders declared that “On tax avoidance, we support the OECD’s work to tackle profit shifting and base erosion” – laudably reserved language given that the host of the event, David Cameron, had been quoted in the left-wing Guardian as saying: “Some forms of avoidance have become so aggressive that I think it is right to say these are ethical issues”, while urging multinationals to “wake up and smell the coffee”.
Other than the obviously crude reference to Starbucks who managed to turn the method for making a cup of coffee into low-taxed, high value, intellectual property, I fail to understand what was percolating through the Prime Minister’s brain when he came up with that daft metaphor. But usage of the term “ethical” in the same sentence as “avoidance” makes my kettle boil.
Does Mr Cameron need reminding that, while he may be in a morganatic marriage with a bunch of toenail-picking lefties, his party is the standard-bearer of Capitalism? Emotive words like “ethical” and “moral”, let alone “avoidance”, do not cosy-up with “Capitalism”. Capitalism is not an ideology, it is not weighed down with subjective value judgments. The only brakes on Capitalism should be laws passed by parliaments to curb its excesses. A good capitalist will always be looking for ways around restrictions to enhance the march of Capitalism because that is his job. He is naturally centrifugal rather than centripetal. He might throw in a bit of Social Conscience along the way out of the goodness of his throbbing heart – but it is the function of legislatures to rein him in.
While popular protest movements have every right to object to multinationals like Apple, Starbucks, Google and Amazon paying less tax worldwide than Warren Buffett’s secretary, populist leaders and legislatures would do well to take a break from their brown-nosing and reflect on who is really to blame rather than labeling companies”immoral”. If they came up long enough for air they might realize that, instead of bellyaching with the protesters, it is their job to ensure that the right laws are in place.
If truth be told, the main problem with multinational non-taxation is what that bastion of bankrupt socialism the Guardian angrily identified as “the practice of transfer pricing”. Consistently applied rules across nations by multinationals based on the three pillars of: functions, assets and risk have indeed enhanced the mobility of profits to unlikely corners of the Globe. But who put those nutjob rules in place? Waitforit……the OECD – the darling of the G8 which is now being entrusted with the job of getting all these nasty companies back in line.
Accusing an inanimate corporate entity of immorality is beyond the realms of even my fertile imagination, but if the OECD is to get anywhere “before”, as Mr Cameron might have said, “the coffee goes cold”, all 34 member governments plus others with observer status are going to need to instruct their international tax teams to cooperate beyond their narrow interests to arrive at rules that are workable and fair in a multinational context. Experience to date does not bode well for the future. In the meantime governments should accept that, in the interests of capitalism, the tax fraternity will continue to seek out loopholes as they seek to maximise market efficiency. Brains and pens at the ready. Let the battle begin.